2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Toyota Highlander Comparison

Erin Riches-Wong | Feb 02, 2021

Midsize SUVs with three rows of seating make a lot of sense whether you're a parent of three caught up in the daily grind or a grandparent taking adventures with extended family. These vehicles can accommodate multiple adults, kids in car seats, or pets depending on your priorities, and for the most part, everyone should be quite comfortable.

Ford and Toyota each sold over 200,000 examples of their 3-row midsize SUVs in 2020. Many midsize crossover shoppers will have the perennially popular Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander on their test-drive list. Here's a 2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Toyota Highlander comparison to assist you in the search for your next vehicle.

Price and Value

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum White Front Quarter View

2021 Ford Explorer Platinum

When shopping, you’ll find 2021 Ford Explorer prices start at $32,225 and climb to $54,480, not including a $1,245 destination charge. The Explorer comes in base, XLT, Limited, ST, and Platinum trim levels.

Ford offers three engines for the 2021 Explorer: a turbocharged 4-cylinder that will satisfy most customers; a high-performance twin-turbocharged V6; and a hybrid powertrain that combines a non-turbo V6 with an electric motor and a small, lithium-ion battery pack mounted under the second-row seats. Note that the Ford Explorer Hybrid is available only in Limited trim and costs $49,855.

Rear-wheel drive is standard on all base, XLT and Limited models, including the Explorer Hybrid. You can have all-wheel drive for another $2,000. Or you can select the ST or Platinum, both of which have AWD as standard.

Every 2021 Explorer comes with FordPass Connect. FordPass offers only a limited menu of connected services, but for the moment, it's free. Owners can use their phones to lock the doors, start the engine, or schedule a time to start the engine. You also get a 3-month free trial for the Explorer's 4G Wi-Fi hotspot and you can use up to 3 GB of data.

Ford does not offer complimentary scheduled maintenance on the Explorer. However, the FordPass app gives you access to a rewards program in which you earn points for completing various tasks (purchasing an Explorer, for example) and redeem them at participating dealerships for discounts on oil changes and other services.

The 2021 Toyota Highlander lineup includes both a conventional V6 model and a hybrid version that combines a 4-cylinder engine with a couple of electric motors and a small battery pack under the rear seat. 

You can have Toyota's three-row midsize SUV in L, LE, XLE, XSE, Limited, and Platinum trim levels. The L and XSE are V6 only. The 2021 Toyota Highlander price range is from $34,810 to $48,365, not including a $1,175 destination charge. The Highlander Hybrid starts at $38,410.

Front-wheel drive is standard on all versions of the Toyota Highlander. If you want AWD, budget another $1,600 with the L, LE, and XLE trim levels and $1,950 for the XSE, Limited, and Platinum trims regardless of engine choice.

Toyota's connected services offer more functionality. All 2021 Highlanders come with a free year of Safety Connect, which provides automatic collision notification and quick access to emergency responders when needed. You also get a 3-month free trial for the Highlander's Wi-Fi, though you can only use 2 GB of data.

Stepping up to the LE trim level unlocks a free year of Remote Connect, which allows to you to lock the doors, start the engine, and track down your Highlander in a crowded parking lot. Higher trims are available with 10 years' worth of Service Connect, which makes it easier to stay on top of maintenance and safety recalls, along with a year of Destination Assist, which is a 24-hour concierge service.

Toyota provides free scheduled maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles that you own your Highlander. 

In the J.D. Power 2020 U.S. Resale Value Awards, the Toyota Highlander ranked third in the midsize SUV segment.

Advantage: Toyota Highlander

Reliability and Quality

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum Moon Dust Front Quarter View

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum

The Ford Explorer did not rank among the top three performers in its class in either the J.D. Power 2020 Vehicle Dependability Study or the 2020 Initial Quality Study. The Explorer comes with the following warranty and roadside assistance coverage:

  • Standard warranty: 3 years or 36,000 miles
  • Powertrain warranty: 5 years or 60,000 miles
  • Hybrid system warranty: 8 years or 100,000 miles
  • Hybrid battery warranty: 8 years or 100,000 miles
  • Roadside assistance: 5 years or 60,000 miles

The Toyota Highlander also did not rank in the 2020 Vehicle Dependability Study or the 2020 Initial Quality Study. The Toyota comes with the following warranty and roadside assistance coverage:

  • Standard warranty: 3 years or 36,000 miles
  • Powertrain warranty: 5 years or 60,000 miles
  • Hybrid system warranty: 8 years or 100,000 miles
  • Hybrid battery warranty: 10 years or 150,000 miles
  • Roadside assistance: 2 years or 25,000 miles

Advantage: Ford Explorer

Performance and Efficiency

2021 Ford Explorer ST Interior Dashboard

2021 Ford Explorer ST

Most 2021 Ford Explorers will have a turbocharged, 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine that makes an impressive 300 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque. It is paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission.

Optional on Limited models is a hybrid powertrain in which a 3.3-liter V6 engine joins forces with a specialized version of the 10-speed automatic with a 33-kilowatt electric motor built into it. Total system output is 318 hp and 322 lb.-ft. of torque.

This is a different setup than you typically see on hybrids, and it allows Ford to offer Explorer Hybrid buyers a choice between rear-wheel drive and a conventional AWD system (with a driveshaft connecting the front and rear axles). Often, hybrids with AWD will have an additional electric motor at the rear axle, eliminating the driveshaft. Ford’s AWD system includes a terrain management system with driver-selectable modes.

A properly equipped Ford Explorer Hybrid has a 5,000-pound tow rating versus 5,300 lbs. for the 4-cylinder Explorer. A transmission tow-haul mode is standard, and the stability control system incorporates trailer sway control.

Finally, there's the twin-turbocharged, 3.0-liter V6 engine. It's rated at 400 hp and 415 lb.-ft. of torque in the performance-themed Explorer ST and 365 hp and 380 lb.-ft. of torque in the more luxurious Platinum model. The 10-speed automatic is standard as is AWD. When properly equipped, both versions have a 5,600-lb. tow rating. 

Four-cylinder Ford Explorers with rear-drive earn a 24 mpg rating in combined city and highway driving, while AWD versions rate 23 mpg. The 2021 Ford Explorer Hybrid rates 27 mpg in combined driving with rear-wheel drive and 25 mpg with AWD. The twin-turbo V6 Explorers are the least fuel-efficient with a 20 mpg rating in combined driving.

You have two engine choices on the 2021 Toyota Highlander. First up is a 3.5-liter V6 engine. It makes 295 hp and 263 lb.-ft. of torque. An 8-speed automatic transmission is standard, as is a start-stop system that shuts off the engine when you're stopped in traffic.

The Highlander Hybrid uses a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, two electric motors, and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Total system output is 186 hp and 175 lb.-ft. of torque. 

Front-wheel drive is standard with either powertrain. If you opt for AWD on the hybrid model, a third electric motor provides torque to the rear axle. On V6 models, you get a conventional AWD system with a driveshaft delivering engine torque to the rear wheels.

An upgraded, torque-vectoring AWD system on XSE, Limited and Platinum models is able to redistribute power left to right for better traction and control. It also offers selectable terrain modes.

The EPA rates the Toyota Highlander’s V6 at 24 mpg in combined driving with front-wheel drive and 23 mpg with AWD. The front-drive 2021 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has a stellar 36 mpg EPA combined rating. The AWD version rates 35 mpg combined.

Properly equipped V6-powered Highlanders have a 5,000-lb. tow rating, while the hybrid model tops out at 3,500 lbs. Trailer sway control is standard.

Advantage: Neither. The Ford Explorer should be your pick if acceleration and towing capability are priorities, while the Toyota Highlander has a significant advantage in the fuel economy department.

Safety and Driving Assistance

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum Interior Dashboard

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Every 2021 Ford Explorer comes standard with Ford's Co-Pilot 360 collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). The list includes a forward collision warning system, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warnings, lane-keeping assistance, blind-spot warnings, rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic high-beam headlight control. 

Optional on the XLT and standard on higher-trim Explorers is Co-Pilot 360+, which takes you into Level 2 semi-autonomous driving assistance with the addition of adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, lane-centering assistance, speed-limit sign recognition, and evasive-steering assistance. 

Reverse Brake Assist, a rear emergency braking system, and Active Park Assist 2.0, a fully autonomous self-parking system, are standard on the ST and Platinum. A surround-view camera system is standard starting on the Limited trim. The Platinum has adaptive headlights.

The Ford earned a 5-star overall National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rating, and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 2020 model a Top Safety Pick+.

All 2021 Toyota Highlanders come with Toyota's Safety Sense 2.5+ (TSS 2.5+), which offers nearly the same features as Co-Pilot 360+, including the Level 2 semi-autonomous aids. There is a major exception: Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warnings are not available on the base L trim level but are standard on other trims.

A rear-seat reminder system to help you avoid leaving kids in the car is standard across the board. Rear emergency braking is standard on the Highlander Limited and Platinum. A surround-view camera is optional on the Limited and standard on the Platinum. Adaptive headlights are exclusive to the Platinum.

The Toyota also earned a 5-star overall NHTSA rating, but it received only 4 stars for frontal-impact safety (versus a full 5 stars for the Ford). Likewise, the 2020 Highlander was an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, though the IIHS rated its automated braking for pedestrians slightly higher than the Ford's and judged its LATCH setup for child car seats easier to use.

Advantage: Ford Explorer

Infotainment and Technology

2021 Ford Explorer Limited Blue Rear Quarter View

2021 Ford Explorer Limited

The 2021 Explorer has Ford's Sync 3 touchscreen infotainment interface. All trim levels have a standard 8-inch display, but you can equip the ST and Platinum with an optional 10.1-inch display mounted in portrait orientation. 

The basic setup includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, two USB ports (one a regular Type-A, the other a newer Type-C), a 3-month trial subscription for SiriusXM satellite radio, and six audio speakers. Stepping up to the XLT provides two more USB ports (again, one of each variety) in the second row, along with full keyless access to the vehicle.

A factory navigation system is also optional on the XLT, and it includes a 5-year subscription to SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link. This setup is standard starting on the Limited, which also picks up a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system and wireless phone charging pad. A 14-speaker version of the B & O system is optional for the ST and Platinum.

An 8-inch touchscreen interface is also standard in the 2021 Toyota Highlander. A 12.3-inch display is optional on the Limited and standard on the Highlander Platinum.

Lower trims start out with full smartphone integration, six audio speakers, five USB ports, and a 3-month satellite radio trial subscription. 

A wireless charging pad is standard starting on the XLE, while factory navigation and an upgraded audio system (still only six speakers, though) are optional. The nav system is a version of Toyota's Entune 3.0 system, which uses over-the-air updates to provide up-to-date maps and accurate voice recognition. Toyota includes a 3-year subscription to updates.

The Limited has navigation as standard, along with an 11-speaker JBL audio system. The Platinum comes with a head-up display and a digital rearview mirror display (in addition to the conventional mirror) that uses a high-mounted camera to give you a wider view of what's behind your SUV.

Finally, there's Driver Easy Speak, which amplifies your voice so you can talk to third-row occupants without shouting. It's available starting on the XSE trim.

Advantage: Neither. The Explorer and Highlander offer similar features and technology. Taking a test drive is the best way to get a feel for which interface you'll prefer to use.

Comfort and Utility

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum Moon Dust Rear Quarter View

2021 Toyota Highlander Platinum

Base Ford Explorers can accommodate up to seven people, thanks to a 35/30/35-split second-row bench seat. Second-row captain's chairs are standard on all other trims (reducing capacity to six), though you can still get the bench as an option.

Other standard items in the base Explorer include cloth upholstery, an 8-way power driver’s seat (4-way manual for the front passenger), triple-zone climate control, and a power liftgate. The XLT gets upgraded cloth trim and interior finishes, along with a 10-way power driver’s seat and 4-way power adjustment for the front passenger.

The Limited is your ticket to leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated second-row chairs, second-row sunshades, and ambient LED interior lighting. The ST adds driver memory settings, power tilt/telescope steering wheel adjustment (instead of manual adjustment), power-folding capability for the Explorer's 50/50-split third-row seats, and a hands-free liftgate – all items that are optional on the Limited. The Platinum has upgraded leather upholstery and real wood accents.

Cargo capacity behind the third row measures 18.2 cubic feet. Folding those seats down provides 47.9 cu.-ft., and maximum capacity measures 87.8 cu.-ft.

The Toyota Highlander has a seating capacity of seven or eight, depending on whether you have a bench seat or captain's chairs in the second row. The third-row seat has a 60/40 split and three seatbelts, though it'll be a challenge to find that perfect combination of narrow car seats and slender children to get three across back here.

The Highlander L starts you out with cloth upholstery, an 8-way power driver’s seat (4-way manual for the front passenger), and triple-zone climate control. The LE provides a power liftgate and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The XLE upgrades to Toyota's SofTex upholstery, 10-way power driver’s seat (4-way power for the front passenger), heated front seats, and second-row sunshades.

Leather upholstery is optional starting on the XSE and standard on higher trims. The Limited also has driver memory settings, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, ambient LED lighting, and a hands-free liftgate. The Platinum provides upgraded leather upholstery and heated second-row seats.

You'll have 16.0 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the Toyota Highlander's third-row seat. Fold both sections down and the SUV supplies 48.4 cu.-ft. Maximum capacity amounts to 84.3 cu.-ft.

Advantage: Ford Explorer

Learn More About the Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander

If you’d like to learn more about these 3-row midsize SUVs, be sure to read our expert reviews of the Ford Explorer and the Toyota Highlander. To find out how people like you rate vehicles in this segment, be sure to check out our ratings from verified vehicle owners.

Also, please keep in mind that while the information in this article was accurate and valid on February 2, 2021, it may have changed since that date. Always confirm product details and availability with the automaker’s website or your local dealership.

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